Since the first fruits developed about 80 million years ago, living creatures have been getting drunk — at least sometimes. Fermentation started when overripe fruit mixed with yeasts in the air, creating the first natural alcohols. For animals, the high sugar content of a ripe fruit may have signaled it as a better source of nutrition, leading to inadvertent intoxication among early species. Yet both our alcohols and our foods have also progressed from those first accidental tipsies: Humans turned waiting for food to go bad into an art.
Since at least 10,000 BC, humans have been purposefully mixing fermented beverages and imbibing them. The Greek cult of Dionysus, for example, worshipped their wine-creating god by drinking too much. Meanwhile, the rest of Greek and Roman civilizations weren't exactly teetotalers, either. There's not much scholarship tracing the first recorded hangover, but knowing humans today, it's a fair inference that the day-after malady afflicting those who enjoy a bit too much of an alcoholic beverage is probably about as old, too.
One thing we innovative humans are good at is looking for cures to what ails us. But hangovers are a tricky study. According to Dr. Jason Burke, founder of Hangover Heaven and a "leading hangover expert" (it's still a small field), most studies only allow participants to reach a blood alcohol level of 0.1, which is "not that high" for research purposes. (Ethics committees that approve scientific studies rightly consider BACs above that to be too risky.) Likewise, most studies need a control group, which can be hard to find when age, genetics, weight, and many other factors play into how each individual experiences a hangover.
Today, humanity has settled on aspirin and electrolyte-filled sports drinks to ease the pain. But in the past, food was often what came to the rescue.
The oldest hangover cures
Early hangover cures seem to fall into two categories: sounding like a way to keep vampires away and a meal worthy of Fear Factor. One recently uncovered Egyptian medical papyri advocated for making a garland out of the chamaedaphne shrub. The Greeks recommended wearing a careful selection of plants on your head to keep drunkenness at bay. Most of the plants associated with the god Dionysus — ivy, laurel, and asphodel — were used for medicinal purposes. Whether the plant mythology or hangover treatment came first is impossible to know for sure. Shrubbery not your thing? In ancient times, you could have also cast a spell over your beers before drinking them. Or only drink alcohol after a frog drowned in it. Whether the frog had to drown accidentally or whether the drinker-to-be was expected to lend a hand is open for interpretation.
Then there was cabbage. Depending on how you feel about the hard green lettuce ball, it was, either luckily or unluckily, eaten and not worn. Many cultures — from the Greeks and Egyptians through to more modern times — have advocated for cabbage in all its forms as a hangover remedy, raw and sauerkraut alike. For the more adventurous, Roman philosopher Pliny the Elder recommended eating raw owl's eggs or fried canary. By the Middle Ages, a go-to remedy was to gulp down some raw eel and bitter almonds.
Cabbage aside, these foods are unlikely to be used to ease a hangover today. Yet there are other questionable cures that have survived. Rollmops is a dish of pickled herring rolled around a savory filling that probably dates back to the Middle Ages, but is part of a balanced Katerfrühstück, or hangover breakfast. Strong-stomached Scandinavians who felt so inclined could turn to surströmming — canned and fermented herring — famously described as the world's smelliest food. In Korea, hangover soup, haejangguk, is the remedy of choice. While a common form is a bit like a beef and vegetable stew, it can also be made with congealed blood for an extra pick-me-up.
Another less-appetizing hangover remedy is rabbit dung tea. Today, gardeners advocate giving plants some extra nutrients by steeping bunny poop in hot water and giving the greens a guzzle. (Like any good manure source, there's a lot of good nitrogen, potassium, and minerals.) American cowboys (reportedly) decided it would be a better idea to just drink it themselves to make their aches go away.
Get your brunch on
Drinking and eating have always had a symbiotic relationship, but when it comes to restaurants, they're almost a necessary pairing. While people purporting to cure hangovers have created some truly revolting concoctions — maybe the inventor's goal was to get people to regurgitate whatever was left from the night before — humanity has also turned the hangover meal into something truly sublime.
Not only have the British invented early morning monstrosity known as the full English breakfast, their late-night carousing led to the most important gastronomic creation of the 20th century — brunch. Before brunch was a verb associated with waiting in line, it was a hangover remedy. British writer Guy Beringer begged for its creation in order to "make life brighter for Saturday-night carousers" in an 1895 essay "Brunch: a Plea." Beringer brilliantly proposed: "Instead of England's early Sunday dinner, a post church ordeal of heavy meats and savory pies, why not a new meal, served around noon, that starts with tea or coffee, marmalade, and other breakfast fixtures before moving along to the heavier fare?" Why not, indeed.
As brunch grew in stature, so did the foods on the menu. Soon, drinkers of all stripes happily cast aside eels and dung drinks in favor of eggs, carbs, and coffee in all their glory. Eggs Benedict, a favorite hangover remedy, was invented for brunch. Not only do humans evolutionarily gravitate toward fatty foods as an energy source, alcohol may make these cravings stronger. A 2004 study found a chemical called galanin not only increases desire for fatty foods, but that alcohol intake leads to a higher production of galanin — leading to a never-ending cycle of brunching and drinking.
William Gruchow, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, has studied and written about galanin and its effects on various neurotransmitters. "Galanin increases appetite for fats, and consumption of fat causes more galanin to be produced," Gruchow says. "Alcohol intake also results in increased galanin production."
Today, restaurants intelligently advertise hangover-busting brunch specials. Last year Red Robin announced a "cure burger" made from chili, cheddar, bacon, mushrooms and an oozing egg and served with an endless supply of fries. Other restaurants put their carbiest, heaviest brunch items onto a special "hangover menu."
Milton Crawford, author of The Hangover Cookbook, doesn't believe that finding "a cure" has to be the point of post-inebriation. "I don't want to feel terrible when I have a hangover and food is one of the most therapeutic things in all our lives," he says. "The right food is essential but it should always be part of a more general strategy." (Crawford, who is English, recommends "getting off your self pitying arse" as a "good start.") In other words, food is more of a comfort than a medicine. The best way to ease a hangover is to change a few things the night before.
It would be irresponsible to write an article about gastronomic hangover cures without mentioning that how you drink does play a role in the resulting hangover. But this is not a call for temperance — just don’t forget those vitamins. Dr. Burke believes that drinking water is all well and good, but not the most important part of pre-gaming away a hangover. "So many people have been misled that hangovers are just dehydration, and it's completely not the case," he says.
The three causes are actually as follows: a thing called "oxidative stress" (lack of antioxidants), inflammation, and then — all the way at the bottom of the totem pole — dehydration. "It's a lot easier to prevent hangovers than to deal with them the next morning," Burke adds. He recommends taking two multivitamins and an Advil before going to sleep. That will both help replenish what the body lost from all the alcohol you've poured into it and cut down on the aches and pains. "It's like Gatorade, you drink before you work out," he says.
Another thing to consider is how you're going to drink. "Certain types of alcohol have a whole lot more contaminants and impurities in them," Burke says. Price is often a good indicator, but even people on a budget can do better for hangover prevention. First, stay away from dark alcohols. "Whiskey and bourbon cause much worse hangovers than clear alcohol." In wine, the opposite is true — so go with a warm winter red during your holiday dinner instead of white or champagne. You may still be hungover tomorrow, but it won't be as bad.
"One of the frustrating things for me is that people make hangovers a binary problem," Burke says. "They're just like any other medical condition — you have mild, moderate, and severe hangovers." He guarantees that "six shots" of top shelf vodka versus a cheap whiskey will make you feel better the next day.
But if you find yourself in the midst of a bad hangover, skip the canaries and dung tea and order the brunch of your dreams instead. It may not do anything to help, but chowing down on an eggs Benedict and artfully mixed bloody mary sure does feel good.